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Buddhistdoor View: International Responsibility is Humanity’s Priority

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People receiving vaccinations in Hong Kong.
People receiving vaccinations in Hong Kong. From reuters.com

COVID-19 has been the biggest peacetime challenge to the global community. A staggering 3.7 million people have lost their lives to this pandemic according to official data, yet a World Health Organization report earlier this year suggested that as many as 40 per cent of COVID-19-related deaths are not included in this figure. The pandemic has also wrought havoc on the global economy and transformed the way we work and socialize. Old crises have taken on a new urgency, such as the increase in violence against women and the exploitation of essential workers and frontline healthcare professionals.

Amid the unprecedented stress and tragedy, an extraordinary scientific triumph in the form of COVID-19 vaccines has given many countries hope. In the UK and the US, public venues such as restaurants, concert halls, theaters, nightclubs, and bars are beginning to reopen and media outlets are abuzz with excitement about a restoration of social and economic activity.

Yet there is no room for complacency as the global situation continues to be mixed. In recent days, the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou reported a surge in new cases of the Delta variant pf the SARS-CoV-2 virus, prompting the government to cancel flights and lock down the city. In Australia, Melbourne also put in place a lockdown from 27 May to 10 June.  And rising rates of infections have been reported in Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand, which Prof. Ben Cowling at the School of Public Health, University of Hong Kong, has attributed to not only COVID fatigue but also poor vaccine coverage.

Vaccines are in short supply in certain areas, but even in places where vaccines are plentiful, there is complacency and skepticism. In Hong Kong, which has done well in terms of social distancing and mask wearing, public mistrust of the government has been a big factor behind reluctance among many segments of the population to be vaccinated.

Almost the entire Global South now faces a broader resurgence in cases. India has lost approximately 340,000 lives to the pandemic, many of whom have died since a second wave of infections hit the country in April. Malaysia, desperate to contain daily infection rates as high as 8,290, has imposed a nationwide movement control order. Meanwhile, due to statistical revisions, Peru has more than doubled its death toll from 69,342 to 180,000. This is grim news, especially since much of Latin America has been hit hard by the pandemic.

It is in this extraordinary context that nations in the Global North must find the political will to not only to distribute vaccines, like China has been doing across the world, but also to waive patents. Certain pharmaceutical companies might worry about rival conglomerates undercutting their profits as the sole patent holders for these vaccines, yet possessiveness over the antidote to a worldwide pandemic can only hurt us all collectively. In a previous View, we argued that: “Rich Western nations have hoarded vaccines at the immediate expense of poorer countries. As we know, this allows the virus to spread in those countries and mutate, potentially unleashing yet another variant that could overcome existing vaccines. While the rollout in wealthy countries and some smaller societies such as Bhutan may be going well, the longer that other countries must wait for needed vaccines, the more global harm will occur.” 

Global harm is the key concern: hoarding based on concerns about the private profits of pharmaceutical companies, or on politically motivated calculations about vaccine diplomacy, may very well rebound and hurt the Global North in the form of new surges or the emergence of new variants.

There are therefore advantages to enlightened self-interest when it comes to vaccines. The “instant good karma” of removing patents and distributing more vaccines to the Global South is that the world will be inoculated against COVID-19 much more quickly. Industrialized economies, completely free from the worry of new strains or surges, could come roaring back. Yet as long as there is a weak link in the chain of countries that have low vaccination rates and high case numbers, even the most positive outlook will be tinged by the anxiety that a single error could result in a new wave, including in countries where the situation is beginning to look quite positive. 

The Buddhist scriptures, of course, do not envisage generosity in this manner. Enlightened self-interest is still self-interest. In 1955, journalist Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent to the polio vaccine. “Well, the people, I would say,” Salk responded. “There is no patent. Could you patent the Sun?” Of course, rhetoric and high-minded sentiment cannot be a substitute for careful strategizing in a much more complex world than the 1950s. Yet is the analogy with the Sun so far-fetched? There is certainly a Buddhist analogy to be made between how the Sun impartially shines over all the land with none left unbathed in its light, and the kind of generosity (dana) to which we humans should aspire.  

True generosity does not expect anything in return. The Itivuttaka says: “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of selfishness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift.” The simple gift of a plate of food or something more immaterial like one’s precious time or a kind presence, can make an incredible difference. Imagine, then, the unity and large-scale recovery from COVID-19 that awaits a world with equalized access to vaccines. But to accomplish this herculean feat, political will in the Global North should be partnered with a clear-eyed assessment of which demographics in which regions need vaccinations the most.

For example, the European Centre for Disease prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have suggested delaying inoculations of young adults in rich nations, noting in a report that vaccinating adolescents should be a priority only when they are at high risk of developing serious coronavirus symptoms. For political and economic reasons, national governments are inclined to prioritize domestic populations first, hence seniors often being first in line to receive vaccinations. However, the calculations will inevitably change should countries of the Global North begin distributing vaccines on a large scale to counterparts in the Global South.

Perhaps, counterintuitively, younger populations in emerging economies would qualify for being vaccinated first, given how crucial they are to keeping their communities economically afloat. This way, the Global South would not be forced to choose between crippling lockdowns or rampant infections, a dilemma that the Global North will soon no longer face.

Buddhistdoor Global columnist Sister Ocean has written on the personal dimension of giving and generosity; about how generosity can deflate the ego’s pride but also wrap up pre-existing pride in false humility.* What if this wise advice were to be applied at the national level? Is there any way for the Global North to see the worldwide distribution of vaccines and loosening of patents as more than a “flex” by the mighty industrialized nations in paternal soft power? Can certain countries that initially struggled against the pandemic put aside pride and nationalism to discern why COVID-19 cases are surging elsewhere? These questions may well determine the nature of geopolitical relations in a post-COVID world for years to come.

The Perfection of Giving (Buddhistdoor Global)

See more

The true death toll of COVID-19 (World Health Organization)
China Thought They’d Beaten COVID, Now the Indian Variant Is Surging (The Daily Beast)
Australia’s Victoria state extends COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne (Reuters)
Malaysia to impose total nationwide lockdown from June 1-14 as Covid-19 cases hit new record (The Straits Times)
Covid: Peru more than doubles death toll after review (BBC News)
Consider global shortages before giving COVID-19 shots to teens, EU body says (Reuters)

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